Up till a week ago, 67-year-old Snehlata Patel believed that WhatsApp was the only possible way in which she could share jokes and other messages with her friends, or have “free” video calls with her relatives. Since Saturday, however, she has spent hours glued to her phone, struggling to familiarise herself with Signal – a messenger app to which many in her “school friends” WhatsApp group were moving.

“All weekend, my friends had been forwarding messages from their children about how WhatsApp is taking private data from our phones,” said Patel, a retired bank clerk from Mumbai. “I had never heard of Signal, but my own son said he has shifted to it, so I asked him to put it on my phone.”

Patel is not alone – she is one of 1.2 million people who have downloaded Signal since the start of 2021, at the same time that WhatsApp saw an 11% decline in its weekly downloads. Telegram, another messenger app, has also seen a surge in new users, with 1.7 million downloads since January 1.

Concerns about data privacy with respect to WhatsApp are not new – the app has run into controversies about user data shared with its parent company, Facebook, ever since it was acquired by Facebook Inc in 2014. But a new WhatsApp privacy policy released on January 4 has triggered widespread, global alarm about the safety of user data.

The new WhatsApp notification forces users to accept its updated privacy policy by February 8 in order to continue using the app. The policy makes it clear that WhatsApp collects expansive meta data from users’ phones, including internet protocol addresses and phone number area codes to estimate users’ geographical location. More significantly, the privacy policy confirms that WhatsApp will allow Facebook access to messages that users share with businesses on the messenger app, which will enable Facebook to further influence user behaviour through targeted advertising.

While most users of digital platforms agree to terms, conditions and privacy policies without actually reading them, WhatsApp’s latest policy has, for the first time, sparked a mass exodus towards other messenger platforms. In India, the unprecedented change in attitude towards the app is evident from the fact that older users like Patel are also considering migrating away from WhatsApp.

“We have been raising concerns about WhatsApp for six years, so the fact that people are now taking it seriously and reacting to it is amazing,” said Bishakha Datta, a digital rights activist and founder of non-profit organisation Point of View. “People had been hesitant to switch to other apps before because all of their friends were on WhatsApp. But this week, so many people I know joined Signal, the app crashed.”

Why now?

In India, the move away from WhatsApp towards other platforms seems to be led largely by urban millennials in their 20s and 30s, many of whom claim they had been uncomfortable with WhatsApp’s privacy policy for years. So why did they choose to take action now?

For many, the biggest reason was a single tweet on January 7 by Elon Musk, the chief executive officer of American electric car company Tesla. In the midst of intense outrage and debate over WhatsApp’s new policy, Musk’s tweet simply said, “Use Signal” – an endorsement for a messenger platform that is open-source, encrypted and known for defending users’ data security.

Credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

“When Elon Musk tweeted, it became like a prophecy,” said Sujit Anand, 36, a cinematographer in Mumbai who is now planning to shift to Signal along with an entire WhatsApp group of friends he plays weekly sports with.

His father’s friends are also in the midst of moving to Signal, he said, because it is now a “hot topic”. “This is probably the first time that he and his friends are becoming aware of privacy concerns around apps.” Personally, says Anand, he believes that the privacy of all users on digital platforms has already been “sold”. “If people are so concerned about privacy today, they should ideally get off all social media entirely,” he said.

A class angle to the Signal move

Others, however, feel there is merit in abandoning WhatsApp, even as people continue to question data policies of other digital platforms.

For independent filmmaker Ankit Mehrotra, the real issue is Facebook Inc and its chief Mark Zuckerberg. “Privacy is one issue, but there should also be a balance of power. And in the case of Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Instagram, the power balance does not seem fair,” said Mehrotra, 38, who lives in Kolkata. “Zuckerberg is now in the hands of tyrannical world leaders who are out to play divisive politics, so moving out of WhatsApp has come a political decision for me – I want to be a part of a disruptive movement.”

Mehrotra has now started using Telegram, which he believes is a secure platform. “I am willing to give Telegram a chance because it is not owned by Zuckerberg,” he said.

Political activist and writer Tushar Kanti Bhattacharya has also made a political decision to move to Signal. “Privacy issues exist with everything, including your Aadhaar number,” said Bhattacharya. “But why should we voluntarily give all our information to a private US-based company?”

Bhattacharya sent his final WhatsApp message to all his contacts on January 10: “I am quitting WhatsApp as its privacy policy is unacceptable. I recommend Signal for future communications,” his message said.

While Bhattacharya has quit WhatsApp entirely, Bishakha Datta is sceptical about how many ordinary Indians would be able to make such a clean transition. “WhatsApp has wide outreach among the [lower-income] masses, and most of them have never heard of Signal or other apps,” said Datta. “There is a class angle to it, and if we have to interact on WhatsApp with people in the working classes, we may not be able to leave WhatsApp completely. So I am not sure what will happen in the future.”